When the 2014 racing season begins, there will be three drivers from three very different series drawing worldwide attention. All three are champions and all three will be starting the new racing season playing a familiar, yet somewhat different, role. Each one is poised to make a significant mark on his respective series.
In Formula One, former world driving champion Kimi Raikkonen has rejoined Ferrari, the team the Finn was driving for when he won his only driving title in 2007. His teammate is Spaniard Fernando Alonso, himself a two-time F1 driving champion. Both men are the epitome of competitive spirit and the pairing of these two at the Scuderia has all the makings of a classic Formula One soap opera battle that will likely be written about for years to come.
In IndyCars, Juan Pablo Montoya has returned to open wheel racing with that series’ premier team, Penske Racing. The Colombian, who boasts successful stints in both Formula One and NASCAR on his resume, returns to IndyCar racing after a tour of duty driving for Chip Ganassi, first in IndyCars and then in NASCAR. Prior to moving to NASCAR with Ganassi, Montoya’s brief open wheel career with Ganassi included winning the 1999 CART title in his rookie season and the 2000 Indy 500, the first driver from Columbia to win the Memorial Day classic.
Since leaving NASCAR in November, Montoya has been quietly testing, getting himself reacquainted with the ins-and-outs of driving open wheel race cars. He’s a fast learner and he’s turned very competitive laps times, which is to be expected given the organization he’s driving for and team mates Will Power and three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves, who helped with the set up of Montoya’s car. He will be competitive from the get-go and he’ll draw crowds everywhere the series races.
In NASCAR, the return of the number 3 into Sprint Cup competition by team owner Richard Childress and with driver Austin Dillon, his grandson, caused quite a stir last week. Social media took center stage following the long-rumored announcement, with fans on both sides expressing their opinion on whether or not Dale Earnhardt Sr’s number should have been retired or returned to competition. Agree with him or not, it was a smart decision by the legendary team owner. He knows that those fans who disagree with his bringing the number back into competition will still tune in to watch how young Dillon performs. They’ll not be disappointed. He’s a rare combination of poise, talent and humility that will make him one of the sport’s more popular drivers – at the same time he enjoys success on the race track.
Expect each of these three drivers to be the prime focus for their respective racing series for both fans and the media in the 2014 season.
The list of questions that Raikkonen will have to answer is lengthy. At 34 years of age, does he still have what it takes to win a driving title against a tough field of drivers, many years his junior? Can he overcome having a brilliant teammate who will give him no quarter on the race track and who enters the season as the team’s No. 1 seed? Will his morphing back into a Ferrari driver happen quickly enough, so as to afford him the luxury of focusing on winning races and not having to get comfortable with the car and the team?
Like I said the list for Raikkonen is endless.
For Montoya, his move from NASCAR to IndyCars will be watched the world over. His name remains a household word among those who follow Formula One and his return to open wheel racing has already made headlines in Europe, South America and elsewhere. And while the casual NASCAR fan may remember him as the driver who caused the calamity at the Daytona 500 a few years back by running into the jet dryer, causing a huge fireball, those who follow NASCAR closely will have a reason to sample IndyCar racing — if only to see if Montoya will fail in his return to open wheel racing. When they do watch IndyCars, they will like what they see – including close racing and shorter races than they’re used to watching in NASCAR.
Austin Dillon’s move into the Sprint Cup ranks signals a new era in NASCAR. One of familiar family names, car numbers and an influx of new young faces appearing in the sport. Chase Elliot, Jeb Burton, Ryan Blaney, Darrell Wallace and Dillon’s brother Ty are at the forefront of the next generation of NASCAR drivers, many of whose bloodlines run decades in the sport — unlike the lion’s share of current Sprint Cup drivers. The return of recognizable family names and of drivers from the southeastern United States will inject a new spirit into NASCAR, one that has been missing for several years.
The change takes place when Dillon rolls out for practice onto the Daytona International Speedway behind the wheel of the number 3 Chevy SS next February.
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